Right now, I can feel the tight squeeze of stress in my stomach. This morning, I got a call from a close friend needing support, which prevented me from starting this article. At any moment, I expect one of my coworkers to email me asking for help with a last-minute assignment. And I’m set to leave my desk early for a dentist appointment, after which I’ll rush home to cook a late dinner.
I’m under time pressure—and I know I’m not alone. If you’re a woman, or a single parent, or practically anyone living in today’s go-go-go American society, you probably are, too. When researchers surveyed Americans before 2011, about half said they almost never had time on their hands and two-thirds said they sometimes or always felt rushed (though a more recent study suggests things may be improving a bit).
As researcher Cassie Mogilner and her colleagues write in a 2012 paper, “With waking hours largely consumed by work, precious minutes remain for the daily list of to-dos, including exercise, cleaning, and socializing with friends and family.”
At first glance, the issue seems straightforward. Time pressure comes down to a lack of time, right? Well, partly. It’s the feeling that we don’t have enough time to do what we want to do—but it turns out that feelings and enough and wants are somewhat subjective.
From 1965 to 2003, the average American workweek actually declined by three hours, while leisure time increased. And in many places in the developed world, the workweek has gotten even shorter since then. In one study of more than 7,000 working Australians, researchers declared that time pressure is an “illusion.” They estimated how much time is necessary for basic living—hours of paid work, housework, and personal care—and compared it to how much free time people had in their actual schedules. It turns out there was a big discrepancy, which was most extreme for households without children and smallest for single parents.
“Those who feel most overworked—those who have least ‘free time’—largely do it to themselves,” the researchers wrote. In other words, we could theoretically spend fewer hours making money, vacuuming and washing dishes, or cooking and eating, and we’d get by without getting overwhelmed.
Although you may not want to subsist just above the poverty line or give your kids as little attention as possible, the broader point is important: Tight-squeezy time stress has to do with the things we value and the time we devote to them. And, other research suggests, it also relates to our attitudes and mindsets about time. Rather than always blaming the clock, we can find some roots of the time crunch deep in our own psychology. Here are some scientific insights to help you make a distinction between real stopwatch pressure and the unnecessary pressure you might be putting on yourself.
1. Enjoyment and passion
In a 2004 study of nearly 800 working people in Ohio, researchers were confronted with a puzzle.
When women did more than 10 hours of housework a week, they felt more pressed for time and in turn more depressed. But when men did the same amount of housework, they didn’t. A similar pattern appeared for volunteering: Men who volunteered more were less depressed, but women got time stressed and didn’t seem to experience as much benefit.
The explanation that the researchers came up with, bolstered by people’s accounts of how they spent their time, was that men tend to do more enjoyable housework and volunteering. They cut the grass and coach soccer teams; they get into flow and feel a sense of accomplishment. Women, on the other hand, are often occupied with small, repetitive daily chores and service work: less cheering and high-fiving and more trying not to fall asleep at school meetings.
Unsurprisingly, a day packed with somewhat engaging activities feels less busy and stressful than a day of drudgery. If time flies (in a good way) when you’re having fun, it also seems to fly (in a bad way) when you’re not. This subjective element might have created more of a sense of time pressure in women who participated in the study, even if men’s activities equaled or exceeded theirs in hours.
A similar effect takes place at work. In one study, researchers surveyed more than 2,500 employees at a technology company and a financial services company. They found that people who are more passionate, who aspire to do things that matter to them at work, aren’t as rushed and harried as others.
If you feel short on time, you might simply not be enjoying the activities that fill up your schedule. Life can be like that sometimes, but if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, it might help to add one more thing to your day—something that keeps you engaged.
2. Inner conflict
Why does passion seem to free up our time? The researchers who observed this phenomenon wanted to discover what was really going on.
They found a clue when they asked employees about how conflicted or aligned their goals were. Employees lacking in passion said that their goals were competing with each other, fighting for time and attention; for example, the drive to do well at work might make it hard to get home for dinner with the family. But passionate employees were different: They saw their goals as supporting each other. After all, healthy home cooking and family bonding might give them more energy and motivation tomorrow.
So, time pressure isn’t just about how enjoyable our activities are, but also how well they fit together in our heads. One study found that people who simply think about conflicting goals—like saving money vs. buying nice things, or being healthy vs. eating tasty foods—feel more stressed and anxious, and in turn shorter on time.
Knox College professor Tim Kasser, an expert on materialism who coauthored a seminal paper on time scarcity, once joked, “If every research project that I’m currently working on right now was a cat living in my house, it would be very clear that I had a problem.” If your to-do list feels like a herd of hungry felines, all in competition for your one can of food, it’s no wonder you’re overwhelmed.
While we may freely choose some tasks on our plate, others are largely the product of our society or culture, says Australian National University professor Lyndall Strazdins, who has spent the last decade trying to show how time scarcity matters for individual and public health. For example, being a good suburban mom today seems to include chauffeuring your kids around the neighborhood to countless sports and hobbies.
“If you don’t do that, then you feel you’re not living up to one set of norms, but if you don’t do [something else], you’re also not living up to another set of norms,” says Strazdins. “You’ve got 24 hours…and you get to a point where you just can’t expand your day.” If you feel a lot of inner conflict about a task, then you might consider just letting it go.
3. A sense of control
Often when we’re caught in a time conflict, it’s because of some external obligation: Daycare pickup runs up against an important meeting; your work shift starts at 9, but the bus is late. Time pressure goes hand in hand with feeling you’re not in control of your own schedule.
In one 2007 study, researchers interviewed 35 low-income working mothers who were caring for at least one child. They asked the moms to talk about how they spent the previous day, and how they manage to feed their families when it’s hectic.
The researchers were able to pinpoint different ways of managing time—some of which were more successful than others.
The least successful was the “reactive” style, where mothers didn’t feel in control of their days. All those mothers felt time-scarce, beholden to the clock, unable to accomplish everything they wanted to. In contrast, mothers who had an “active” time-style had some success at scheduling, managing, and structuring their days. They felt slightly more in control of their own time and a bit less time-stressed than the reactive group.
“People often complain of being in a time bind not only because they are objectively busy, but also because they perceive a lack of control over their time,” researcher Ashley V. Whillans and her colleagues write. That perception may be based on our life circumstances—because we have non-negotiable work hours or babies who aren’t fond of sleeping through the night—but it can also be part of our psychology.
According to research, rather than experiencing life as masters of their own fate, some people tend to feel like they’re at the mercy of external forces (and thus less resilient to stress and more depressed). If this describes you, it may be harder for you to seize back a sense of control over your schedule.
In that case, try to keep your eyes on the prize and do what you can to gain a sense of control over your time. Take little steps, like optimizing your to-do list or practicing saying “no” to people who ask for favors.
4. The value of your time
One last piece of the time-pressure puzzle is money, and that one is complicated. If you work multiple jobs or can’t pay for a babysitter, you’re bound to feel short on time. But some research has found that people with high incomes feel particularly short on time—and people who get richer become even more harried than they were before. Even just feeling rich—when your savings is on the higher end of the scale on a form you’re filling out—can make you feel more rushed.
“In a society like ours, the go-to answer [for happiness] is make more money, buy more stuff,” says Kasser. “What we’re trying to say is, well, no; what people actually need is more time.”
Why would an abundance of money feel like a scarcity of time? One possibility is that rich people have so much they could do with their money but only a handful of hours outside work to do it, suggest researchers Daniel Hamermesh and Jungmin Lee. So many expensive hobbies to pursue, so little time!
“Those who feel most overworked—those who have least ‘free time’—largely do it to themselves”
But another possibility is that they simply put more value on their time. If each hour they’re not working is $100 they could have earned, they better use that hour well.
As economists would remind us, when something is scarce, its value goes up—but the opposite is also true. When something is valuable (like time), we perceive it to be scarcer. In one experiment, researchers asked 67 students to engage in some mock consulting work, for which they would “charge” $1.50 or $0.15 per minute. The students who were charging $1.50 felt more pressed for time—even though they weren’t actually going to earn that money! In another experiment, when people were asked to calculate their hourly wage, high earners felt even more time-starved.
“Feelings of time pressure are not just a function of individual differences, the quantitative amount of time spent working, or even people’s working conditions, although these factors are obviously important,” write researchers Sanford E. DeVoe and Jeffrey Pfeffer. “Time pressure is at least partly a result of psychological processes and the perception of time’s value.”
This is all good news and bad news. It means that our efforts to optimize and schedule, plan and streamline, might not be getting to the heart of the problem. But it also means that we may have more leverage than we think, even if we can’t manufacture spare hours to call a friend or get to the dentist. Time pressure is the uncomfortable gap between how we wish we spent our time—and how we think that would make us feel—and how we’re spending it and feeling now. With that in mind, we just might be able to find some room to breathe.